Architects experiment – it is in their nature. Some push what is possible, what is accepted and what is rational to their limit. Some experiments result in success, others fail. The Casa Sperimentale is one of these amazing built experiments. Surprisingly largely unknown to the architectural community it has been never published. It is an seen as an example of experimental brutalist architecture that deserves to be listed alongside projects including the Barbican, the National Theatre in London and the Banco di Londra in Buenos Aires. Yet it slowly deteriorates, being broken into, vandalised and might be soon be beyond repair and lost.
The research project is uncovering and documenting the story of designing, building and living in this extraordinary structure. For the last five years Storp Weber have been working on documenting and taking part in an effort to rescue this amazing piece of architecture.
What questions does your research raise and which does it address?
The research is addressing a variety of questions and these have changed during the process. Where in the beginning it has been merely to document the building to aid with any future possible conservation efforts by the owner it has shifted and is now much more multi-facetted.
How can digital tools aid in the preservation of historic buildings? This is how we started out. But now we have discovered more of the history of the building and the architects it has on one hand shifted now.
How the use of early computing (Giuseppe Perugini was a pioneer in the field in 1965-1975) looking at the analysis of data and how this has informed the building design? Perugini worked at Sapienza alongside pioneers of the field, he worked on projects looking at how data informs the design of buildings beyond their actual appearance.
How did the APAO (Association of Organic Architecture) and the collaboration with Bruno Zevi shaped the design? How is Casa Sperimentale a test bed for the seven rules of Organic Architecture?
Perugini and Zevi founded the APAO and devised new ways to design as a reaction to the Italian architecture during fascism.
How can the endless house game be played again?
The house is actually a modular concrete house, all walls are on loadbearing and can be disassembled and reassembled in a different way. We are currently working on an animation/simulation to use all the elements of the house and to generate a different reality, one where the user can influence how it is combined/assembled. This is very much like the family made decisions. They cased lots of bits, then made decisions as they went along creating endless possible Casa Sperimentale in the process.
How and to what extent can the project be considered as an act of preservation?
Preservation in architecture can be approached in a varied way. One one hand it can be understood as the direct saving of an endangered structure. But sometimes circumstances are forbidding this – societal, cultural, financial reasons playing some part in this. Post-war architecture in Italy is not yet on the forefront of the discussion around heritage. One must understand the situation in the context of a further 2000 years + of cultural heritage to be preserved.
With advances in digital media, VR and AR the actual experience of visiting a building doesn’t have to happen on site, it can be experienced wherever the technology is available. We see our 3D scans as an effort to preserve the experience of the building in case the structure is lost to the elements. We are currently exploring how this can be made accessible online form of a facsimile to give the structure maybe some breathing space and to avoid the constant break-ins by interested parties.
But the project can do more, it can explore aspects of the building previously hidden, not being accessible. We see this an an opportunity to bring more people in contact with the building and to raise its profile.
How can 3D scanning/AR/VR be used to create a digital facsimile of a lost architecture?
This is a quite urgent issue. The main frame holding up the building is showing signs of serious structural failure. There are doubts the house can be saved if two of the main metal brackets fails dislodging the frame. In this case our scan will be the only 3D record left. How can a VR experience be used to record buildings/structures? In this case the research is an act of preservation.
Currently a lot of people are breaking in on a daily basis, climbing over the fence, breaking the gates, smashing windows. Maybe a virtual experience can act instead as a proxi-experience maybe?
What informed the tools and mediums through which you are documenting and sharing the project? What role do images hold compared to typical architectural projections as the plan, section?
We have so far worked with a 3D scanning and with a professional photographer to document the building. No real documentation had been done in the past to record the building and its state. We have so far not done any plans/section/elevations as they are now embedded in the digital 3-dimensional dataset. Interestingly the architects (apparently) never did plan/section/elevation of it. It was designed as a fluid process and its appearance was secondary to the process of design. We are attempting to continue this in our documentation.
Should you have to pick one drawing which reveals the complexity and intricacy of the project, what would this be?
We are still analyzing the 3D dataset. The process of the scan allows us to remove elements, change the transparency and as a result of this process reveal connections and relations previously unknown. This is an exciting tool at explore the mindset the building was designed in.
You discovered Casa Sperimentale through an image on a social media page. How and to what extent have digital sharing platforms affected the way we discuss and consume architecture?
We are guilty as charged. We discovered it on a fashion website in the background of a shot and wondered what this is. The Casa has never been published. It has been photographed by Karl Lagerfeld who published a book about it but this is virtually unknown.
Digital platforms esp. geotagging have been extremely determinantal to the building. It attracts thrill seekers, aspiring graffiti artists, young fearless architecture students to it. They are not aware that this constant barrage of illicit visits is slowly grinding down the owner and the building. Since we realised how detrimental our research attempts to aid preservation.
What role did the exhibition and later the catalogue play within the project? What questions were raised in this moment in time and how are these being addressed now?
I am talking a lot about the Casa, in the UK, Germany, Asia etc. In a room full of 100 architects if you are lucky maybe two have seen the building, the rest is oblivious to its existence. We are attempting to document it and to raise awareness of its status in the post war architecture canon. The exhibition and the catalogue are slowly helping to support the awareness, it has to be seen if this follows up with actions.
How important is research for architectural discourse? How and to what extent has this research influenced and affected how you operate as architects?
We are very fortunate to work in an academic environment where we have the possibility to seek funding. The research is only possible through this funding and it is extremely important for the Casa to be recognized.
On the other hand the research is not divorced from our work as architects. For us it has been an important journey to develop a different undertaking of two main aspects of architecture:
1. Experimentation – This is at the heart of everything we should do. Not just the application of knowledge but the attempt to take risks, to test ideas in 1:1.
2. Failure – Usually considered a negative it is sometimes as well a positive aspect of design. We are now looking into buildings that are obvious failures but are maybe actually just not what they were intended to be. One other research of ours is looking at the Unite in Briey by Le Corbusier. This is the one they never publish because it ‘failed’ yet it has now a thriving community living there a non-Le Corbusier lifestyle – fascinating!
What is your most important tool'
We are are interested in the inhabitation, the interaction of the user with the building rather than just the describing of the building through a traditional set of conventional drawings. The non-tangible aspects of inhabitation are mostly overlooked by architects. We design buildings based on composition, or as a technological challenge.
But no budding is complete without its inhabitant, they complete the story, they breath life into it. These invisible, non-tangible aspects are far more important that the actual concrete the building is made out of. Our interviews with residents in the Casa Sperimentale (and in the Briey project in France) have already uncovered aspects of the building that can’t be drawn, can’t be photographed. This is the exciting part of the research, it should be essential and at the centre of all architecture.